My grandmother, who died in 2011 at the age of 93, often used to boast about how, while working in Harrods in central London in the 1930s, she had met Queen Mary of Teck. She told me this when I was very young, and then repeated it over the years. Of course, I had no clear idea who this person was, and `Teck’ sounded bewildering. Where was it? Was this some foreign imperial figure? Even now, I have to think a bit about who she actually was – widow of George the Fifth, and therefore grandmother to the current queen. And not remotely foreign: She was born in Kensington Palace, at least according to this book.
One thing James Pope-Hennessy does clear up in `The Quest for Queen Mary’ (Hodder, London, 2018: https://www.hodder.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781529330625) was something that had greatly impressed my grandmother during the brief moments when she presented herself before the Queen – and that was the pure, smooth quality of her skin. I’d always considered it hyperbole imposed in hindsight, but no: Nan was right. May, as her few friends who dared use this familiar term called her, did indeed have pellucid, fair skin even into old age.
This book is not the formal and officially approved biography Pope-Hennessy wrote in the 1950s,but the edited notes, collated and adorned with explanatory references by Hugo Vickers. They are, as other reviewers have noted, utterly hilarious – written with a subtle, and often subversive humour, and giving a glimpse of a lost world. The jaded tour of the intimidating and unlovable Norfolk pile of Sandringham alone is worth reading the book for. But there are other deeply comical encounters and pen portraits of the vestiges of European royalty, all delivered with a gentle but nevertheless often mocking prose style.
My very very peripheral engagement as a diplomat with British royalty confirms that Pope-Hennessy’s point about it not so much being them that makes them difficult to deal with but the courtiers and flunkies around them is bang on the money. A decade and a half ago I had to accompany one around China. His staff were an incredible menagerie of indiscreet, often anarchic, deeply obsequious creatures, but the tales they told of shenanigans back at home base was even more unsettling. They really did sound a queer bunch – obsessing half the time about the slightest daily needs of their patron, and the rest of the time taking lumps out of each other, or, to not put to fine a point on it, sleeping with them.
Blissfully, my life has been largely free of this sort of burden since then. I always look with the greatest sympathy on social media posts of smiling royals having their latest visitation that former colleagues still in the service put up. I know the price everyone has had to pay to get the events they are advertising successfully dispatched and out of the way.
Pope-Hennessy talks too of the weird networks of people who hang on to royal associations – he calls them lichen’ which clings to stone in dark and damp places, and in his book deals acidly with a couple of examples. About a decade ago I was on a bus travelling down the Strand and this remarkable middle aged neatly dressed man and his mother got on. I know it was his mother because as she cursed him in some blood curdling sounding foreign language he would translate her words calmly so the rest of the bus passengers could hear. `No Mother, you cannot kill me by pushing me off a cliff. There are no cliffs in London.’ Even more unsettling was the way he interjected these translations by what sounded like a highly informed commentary of the links between every place we passed and some member of the Royal family. `And here is where Her Royal Highness the Princess Alice graced the merchants of this shop with her presence in 1958.’ I guess he proved in a melancholy way that the British Royal Family literally can send some people insane.
Because of the emotions invested in them, however, it has proved fruitless to display republican inclinations too openly in contemporary UK. And in a way Pope-Hennessy’s marvellous accounts of his Royal tour to interview figures in the late 1950s proves that for sheer eccentric comic value they probably do have a role. He himself, as Vickers writes in his introduction, enjoyed a less comical ending, tied up and beaten in the early 1970s by thieves, by then already a well progressed alcoholic, and dying a few days later of the effects of this crime. His brother lived longer and himself enjoyed a distinguished career latterly as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Someone I know who worked with him in the 1970s referred to him tartly as `The Pope’ recently. For a moment I thought they were talking about the real one. But as this book shows, real’ is negotiable.